I read a ghost story. That’s weird for me, weird for this blog, though it might not seem like it at first. So today let’s talk about Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Nurse’s Story,” though, really, let’s talk about the ghost story.
Ghost stories aren’t fantasies, apparently. I never bought it, but somehow that distinction might have more to it than I believed (or want to believe). Let’s think about it. A fantasy, as I define it, is any work of narrative art (let’s keep this simple) set in a world other than ours, a world in which things happen that are impossible in ours. Wizards cast magic spells, dragons fly around, dogs and cats live together, so on. I don’t believe ghosts exist, so they qualify as things happening that can’t happen, right? And I seriously doubt most people who write ghost stories think the ghosts really exist. But scholars and critics consider the ghost story as separate from fantasy. Indeed, while fantasy languished in the ghettoes of “popular literature,” people took the ghost story quite seriously. So what’s the difference, exactly? Particularly given the popular traditions of ghost stories surviving to this day in most cultures.
I’m thinking particularly of that just passed, in America, of ghost stories as the world turns chilly in Autumn. And In England, when it’s winter and cold, people tell them. In Japan they wait for summer, so the “chill” can cool you in the hot nights.
Well, I have this ghost story here… Elizabeth Gaskell is famous, but only if you’re a nineteenth century British lit. scholar. She wrote North and South, which is pretty good, and has at least one movie adaptation. But, like nearly every respectable English author of the time, she wrote some ghost stories as well, and “The Nurse’s Story” is the most anthologized.
In it the narrator, Hester, tells a story about a haunted manor house she lived in when she was eighteen. She was the nurse of a young girl named Rosamind, mother of the children the story is being narrated to. As winter comes on everyone hears an organ playing, even though the instrument in the hall is long broken and covered in dust. The manor house is the home of an old lady, her brother having taken the charge of his niece Rosamind after Rosy’s parents died (the mother in childbirth, by the way). Hester sets out to find what’s going on with the organ, but no one will tell her. So she asks the scullery maid, who naturally knows that it’s the old, dead lord of the house, who was mad about music.
The first snowfall comes, and comes hard – this was an interesting story to read when I did, today, as the first frost came the night before – and Rosy disappears. She’s nearly frozen to death out on the moors (damn moors – have we talked about Wuthering Heights yet? No? Guess we have that to look forward to, then), and when she wakes up she says she followed a young girl out to a weeping woman under a holly bush, and the woman took her up until she fell asleep. The snow records only one set of footprints, so Hester assumes she’s lying. But the older servants freak out upon hearing this story, and with a threat of taking Rosy away Hester learns the whole deal:
Grace is the current old lady of the house; she was the younger of two sisters who were proud and stubborn enough to have their way of the house, except when their father (the old lord mad about music) was angry. The father invites a foreign minstrel to stay with him and both sisters promptly fell in love with him. He went off with the older sister and married her, secretly. They had a kid. He didn’t stop his wandering lifestyle, but continued to come annually to the manor house, though he would still pay court to Grace, supposedly to throw her off the scent.
With me so far?
The older sister finally gets fed up with having to visit her child secretly at another house, and as the feud between the siblings has gotten so bad and she has a wing of the house to herself, she brings the kid in. Grace finds out, tells the father, who strikes the child and exiles them both, swearing vengeance on anyone who helps them. So no one does, and they freeze to death on the moors, sheltering under the line of holly trees.
OK, climax time. Everyone hears horrible wailing. They go into the hall and learn it’s coming through the door to the east wing, which has been shut up since the older sister was banished. The door bursts open and the final scene of that story is being replayed with ghostly figures. They see the old lord strike the child, they see Grace, young in this image, watching, uncaring, as this happens. Meanwhile, old woman Grace is weeping and begging her father to spare them, to spare the innocent child, but of course it’s just a replay of old events, so nothing changes. She dies in the night of apoplexy or something, muttering about how one can’t change the sins of youth in old age. And that’s pretty much the story.
This is pretty fucking terrifying, in a lot of ways. The story has a few moments that are genuinely creepy enough to get a reaction as you read, but the terror really sets in once you’ve finished it and think about it some. Basically, in the world of the story, there is no such thing as redemption. Once you’ve fucked up, you’re fucked in turn. The past is a burning fire of vengeance under the feet of the present. There is no hope but to be entirely blameless, and ghosts surround us, threatening to take us to task if we screw something up. If that’s not a terrifying idea, I’m not sure anything ever could be.
So is the ghost story “not a fantasy” because it’s horror instead? I usually think of horror in the same breath as fantasy, you know? A lot of people don’t, but I do. But this is something different still. Is it just because I’ve been told all my life they’re different? I wrote a ghost story once, and it was a fantasy in my head from beginning to end, because ghosts don’t exist. Except as conjured by the people who suffer their presence, you know. This is a mystery for the ages, I suppose.
I have a whole collection of Victorian ghost stories, by the way, so expect to see more of them as winter draws on. They were originally told or published in the cold times of the year, so that seems appropriate.